Graduate school was something Maj. Jason Waggoner had always wanted to check off his list. But between his busy career as an infantry officer (and later, a public affairs officer) with the 101st Airborne Division, repeated deployments and Family commitments, it proved difficult to find the time.

That changed one day in Iraq in December 2007 when, filling in for a print journalist, Waggoner stepped on an improvised-explosive device while covering a patrol story. He never considered medical retirement-the Army will have to "boot me out," he said-but after recovering from an above-the-knee amputation on his left leg at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, he wasn't ready to redeploy again right away.

So when the Army offered to finance his master's degree via its Advanced Civil Schooling Program, in preparation for an assignment in Afghanistan, he jumped at the chance. He expects to graduate from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., in December with a master's in military history and a certificate in security studies. He's then scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in January.

"I was-I don't know if you want to say completely healed, I guess, but I was doing well enough that I could attend some schooling as opposed to deploying again right away, or working in an environment that didn't give me the time to adjust to home life under these new conditions. It's been real good. I live my life and I don't think about what happened or my injuries as much as I could. I mean, it's always there, but this is a great opportunity for me to get some education and continue learning how to live my life, day to day," he said.

Under ACS, 412 active-duty officers a year who are slated for specific jobs are sent to fully funded master's or Ph.D. programs for 12 months to two years (books and other fees are not covered). Selections are left to branch assignment officers with the approval of Elaine Freeman, chief of the Advanced Education Programs Branch at Human Resources Command, who at press time was preparing to deploy as a major in the Army Reserves. She pointed out that 155 of the slots are for future U.S. Military Academy instructors and that the program is extremely competitive. Some branches, she said, will hold boards for dozens of their top captains and junior majors before sending only a handful of names forward.

"As the Army transformed in 2005, 2006, there was a greater need for a very specific skill set in a lot of our functional areas," Freeman explained. "The Army transformed before we had enough (officers) to fill those slots, and the easiest way and the best way-the most cost-effective way-to get them their specific skill sets was to look at graduate programs across the U.S. In some cases, some of the proponents have actually gone to universities and developed their own programs specific for what their officers need. I think that's been very, very beneficial."

ACS cannot interfere with or delay key developmental assignments and Soldiers incur a three-day service obligation for each day spent in school (including weekends and holidays), which begins after graduation. Each branch identifies specific graduate programs based on the utilization assignments, but Soldiers can, within reason, select their schools. Only a few can attend the most expensive schools, however, and all Soldiers are expected to try to negotiate a tuition reduction. Soldiers are on their own when it comes to getting accepted as well, Freeman said.

To be eligible for ACS, Soldiers must have received at least a 2.5 grade point average at their undergraduate school, and scored at least a 500 on both the verbal and quantitative portions of the Graduate Record Examination General Test (and a 4 on the analytical writing portion), or a 500 on the Graduation Management Admission Test.

School becomes the Soldier's place of duty and he or she is expected to get at least a B in every class and attend full time, even in the summer. Soldiers qualify for permanent-change-of-station moves to attend school and may wear civilian clothes.

"He or she gets the time to get away from the Army for a little while, they get back into a traditional school setting," said Freeman. "We don't like to send them to satellite universities. In fact...there will be a change in the regulation to say that we want our officers to sit in a traditional school environment and be able to broaden themselves and gain that experience. We don't like for them to sit at these smaller satellite campuses that are located (on installations). We don't encourage online. But I think there's going to be a little bit of a change in the paradigm because so many universities are classes to supplement their curriculums."

It's still hard work, Waggoner said, explaining that he had been out of school for about 10 years. A short stint in intermediate-level education at Fort Gordon, Ga., helped put him in the academic mindset, and understanding professors have helped as well.

"Fortunately, it's a small school and a small program," he said. It's up and coming as one of the best military history programs in the country. All of the professors have been great. They kind of help you along. They understand that not everybody is coming right out of a bachelor's degree and right into their master's program. (For) some of us, there's been a gap in time since we've been in school, so the professors have been really good about understanding that and answering questions and helping us along as we've needed it.

"Discussions seem pretty frequently to turn to Iraq and Afghanistan and what's going on over there. We talk about strategy and what's worked in the past and what hasn't worked, not just with U.S. involvement, but down through the ages and all manners of warfare. It gives you a really good perspective on what's going on, where we're headed.

"It's going to help me by giving me a perspective on what we're doing, what our missions are. It gives me a foundation of knowledge to understand where we're headed: the environment, the working conditions I'm going to be in. It really helps give you an idea of the bigger picture of what's taking place up at the strategic level, instead of the operational and tactical levels," Waggoner continued.

Freeman noted that the Army has additional graduate programs and fellowships available as well, depending on Soldiers' branches and assignments.

Some, like the Army Congressional Fellowship Program (which includes a fully funded master's in legislative affairs at the George Washington University in D.C.), also have opportunities for noncommissioned officers. Additional tuition-assistance opportunities available throughout the Army (, and the possibility of GI Bill benefits after separation or retirement mean that many more Soldiers and veterans can achieve their education goals.

Under the tuition assistance program, for example, all active-duty, Reserve and activated reserve-component Soldiers can request assistance up to the master's level for off-duty, voluntary programs through the GoArmyEd website. (National Guard Soldiers in drilling status should visit Schools must be accredited and registered in the GoArmyEd system, and if the Soldier is approved, the Army will pay 100 percent of the tuition and authorized fees, up to $250 per semester hour or $4,500 per fiscal year. Active-duty officers incur a service obligation of two years and Reserve officers, four years. Enlisted Soldiers and NCOs don't incur a service obligation.

"It certainly is a lot of work, but it's worth it in the end," Waggoner concluded. "You don't get many opportunities like this in life to get an education that's paid for, and I highly encourage anybody to take advantage of that."

Editor's note: Visit for a complete list of ACS requirements; and for a complete list of graduate programs and fellowships (AKO access required).